Online Sales Plateau as Consumer Spending Focuses on Gas and Groceries

woman grocery shopping

Consumers are in the aisles, spending on groceries, the clothes on their backs — and at brick-and-mortar locales, pivoting a bit from online channels.

At least if the month of August is any indication.

To that end, the Commerce Department reported Thursday (Sept. 14) that retail sales were up 0.6% in August, as measured month over month. Sales at non-store retailers, a designation generally used as a benchmark for internet-related purchases, were flat.

The retail spending tailwind was driven by significant outlays on keeping the gas tanks full, and spending at gas stations was up an outsized 5.2% in the month, as inflation at the pump soared by double-digit percentage points.

consumer splurges chart

The rest of the data show uneven results across various categories — where some discretionary purchases are still buoyant and others have seen declines.

Sales at clothing stores gained 0.9%, health and personal care sales surged 0.5%, and food and beverages (groceries) gained 0.4%, followed by dining out at food and drinking establishments, up 0.3%.

As for the nonessential spending: Spending fell at sporting goods, hobby, musical instrument and book stores, dropping 1.6%, and at furniture stores, a segment that declined 1%.

It may be the case that warmer weather has driven consumers to, well, drive to the stores and to find what they want in a tactile setting — only to go out to eat afterwards.

Where the Splurging Happens

Recent PYMNTS data in the “Nonessential Deep Dive” report, done in collaboration with LendingClub, illuminates just how broad the urge to splurge has become. As the accompanying chart depicts, roughly three-quarters of consumers have told us that they opt to buy “nice to have” items. The majority of consumers and households, whether they live paycheck to paycheck or not, find the wherewithal, or the justification, to buy what they want, when they want it.

top nice-to-have items

And our own research dovetails with the government stats released Thursday. Clothing remains a key spending category, while furniture and appliances are a distant consideration, at least as measured as a “recent” purchase.

Elsewhere, 4 in 10 grocery shoppers said treats were filling their impulse buys and the cupboards.  Desserts, candy or sodas were among the top categories when it came to recent grocery trips that also featured some nonessential spending. At 11% each, premium goods — such as imported foods or seafood — also were items that made their way from the shelves to the baskets and carts and eventually into the checkout lanes. The vast majority of consumers — at more than 80% regardless of whether they lived paycheck to paycheck — said they’d spent money at bars and restaurants.